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Paradigm Lost

State Theory Reconsidered

Stanley Aronowitz and Peter Bratsis, Editors
University of Minnesota Press
Copyright 2002 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota
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Paradigm lost : state theory reconsidered / Stanley Aronowitz and Peter
Bratsis, editors.
p. cm.
Based on the conference Miliband and Poulantzas : In Retrospect and
Prospect, held in April 1997.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-8166-3293-6 (HC : alk. paper) ISBN 0-8166-3294-4 (PB : alk.
1. State, the. 2. Miliband, RalphContributions in political
science. 3. Poulantzas, NicosContributions in political science.
I. Aronowitz, Stanley. II. Bratsis, Peter.
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The goal of this essay is to present a reading of the Marxist theory of the
state that is more complex than the version produced by recent neo-
institutionalist critiques. With Marxs historical works (Revolution and
Counter-Revolution [I88], Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850 [I8,o],
and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [I8,:]) as our point of
departure, we attempt to show that his conception of the state takes its
internal institutional dynamics into account without forfeiting the per-
spective of class analysis. In this manner, when Marx introduces the in-
stitutional aspects of the capitalist state apparatus into his historical analy-
sis, he develops a conception of the state that is both more sophisticated
than the instrumentalist perspective of some Marxists and some crit-
ics of Marxism and less formalist than institutionalist interpretations.
The General Theory of the State in Marx and Engels
Too well known to be taken up again here is the fact that Marx, as part
of his intellectual project, intended to devote himself to a more system-
atic treatment of the stateas his letters to Ferdinand Lassalle (Febru-
ary ::, I8,8), to Fredrick Engels (April :, I8,8), and to Joseph Weydemeyer
(February I, I8,,), written even before the publication of A Contribu-
tion to the Critique of Political Economy in Berlin, attest. Yet this was a
task he was never able to complete. Similarly, his study of capital (and,
within it, the chapter on social classes) remained incomplete. Nonethe-
less, it can be argued that a generic conception of the state can be found
in Marx and Engelss work that can provide the guiding principle, as
The State and Contemporary Political Theory
Lessons from Marx
Adriano Nervo Codato and Renato Monse Perissinotto
Marx himself claimed (Preface, I8,,), for political analysis. This con-
ception consists, in a nutshell, of the notion of the class character of the
state. Marxist political theory therefore implies the categorical rejection
of the vision in which the state is seen as an agent of society as a whole
and of national interests.
This is, in short, the essence of all Marxist conceptions of the state, as
summarized with notable clarity in the well-known formula from The
Communist Manifesto: The executive of the modern state is but a com-
mittee for managing the common aairs of the whole bourgeoisie (Marx
and Engels I88 [I,o,]).
Engels expressed the same idea in an equally
famous passage: The central link in civilized society is the state, which
in all typical periods is without exception the state of the ruling class,
and in all cases continues to be essentially a machine for holding down
the oppressed, exploited class (Engels I88 [I,o,]).
Yet, although the assertion of the class character of the state appara-
tus is a necessary condition for the analysis of the state system, when
one goes on to look at its internal conguration, its levels of decision
making, and the functions fullled by its diverse centers of power, whether
as decision makers or as political organizers of the interests of dominant
classes and class fractions, this determination is highly insucient. The
state apparatus, Poulantzas reminds us, is not reducible to state power.
The State really does exhibit a peculiar material framework that can by
no means be reduced to mere political domination (Poulantzas I,,8, I).
In this sense, the mediating role that the state plays through its admin-
istrative and routine bureaucratic activities acquires a decisive impor-
tance with regard to its class character. In an analogous way, this latter
problem does not refer exclusively to the eects of state policieswhich
involve analytically distinct, though empirically closely related questions
of state powerbut to their form and intrinsic content (Therborn
I,,8, ,,).
The most dening characteristic in the development of contemporary
Marxist political theory has been the absence of questions referring to the
processes of internal organization of the state apparatus. Even Poulantzas,
who sought to comprehend the specic system of organization and
internal workings of the capitalist state apparatus through the concept
of bureaucratism primarily explored the ideological eects of this sys-
tem on the practices carried out by the state (bureaucracy) (Poulantzas
I,o8, I,,,,).
54 Codato and Perissinotto
According to common critiques, the reasons for such systematic omis-
sion should be sought precisely in the confusion that the Marxist tradi-
tion has promoted through its stubborn conation of state power and
class power, reducing the state apparatus to an instrument controlled by
dominant interests. It is almost as if the identication of the states class
character had freed Marxists from the analysis of the concrete forms
through which it unfolds (that is, the way the state works). At best, Marx-
ists have devoted attention to the meaning (in class terms) of state poli-
cies (i.e., the social sectors that benet from particular decisions, gener-
ally economic), but not the modes of internal organization of the state
apparatus and their repercussions on decision-making processes.
This critique comes in two versions. The rst one emphasizes the
eects of this restrictive notion of politics and the state on the theory of
political regimes; the second draws attention to the diculties of a theory
of the state in Marx and later Marxisms. We will take a closer look at
each one of them.
The Institutionalist Criticism to Marxs Theory of the State
Beginning in the mid-I,oos, most notably in Italy, the literature belong-
ing to the revisionist strand emphasized the incipient nature of Marx-
ist political theory.
According to Norberto Bobbio, the fact that Marx
never wrote the book he had planned to on the state (which could be
conceived of as merely circumstantial) in fact conrms the biased treat-
ment that the problem received at the hands of this theoretical tradition.
The state was frequently conceived of as instrumental (in terms of
class domination) or as a mere reection (of the structures determined
by the economic base). This is exactly where we can nd Marxisms
main diculties in dealing with the two most recurring problems of
traditions of political thought: the problem of forms of government
and its correlatewhich polarized the theoretical agenda of political
science at the end of the twentieth centurythe problem of political
In its essence, the argument can be presented in the following man-
ner: in insisting on the class nature of state power, classical Marxists did
not theorize the dierent modes in which power is exercised. Because
they were always concerned with who exercises political domination
and not with how it is exercised, in a class-divided and stratied society,
governmentany government under whatever form (whether demo-
The State and Contemporary Political Theory 55
cratic or dictatorial)was always conceived of as oriented toward
fullling the general interests of the ruling class, regardless of its form,
as can be gleaned from the following passage:
Marx and Engels (and in their following, a revolutionary leader such as
Lenin), convinced as they were that the political sphere is a sphere of
force (and in this sense they were perfectly right), always set up for
themselves the problem of the historical argument of this force, as
particularly expressed from time to time in the ruling class, rather than
inquiring into the various modes through which such force can be
exercised (which is the problem of institutions). (Bobbio I,,,, :8-
emphasis added)
This leads to a theory of the state that, according to Norberto Bobbio,
is essentially partial and incomplete. This is both a theoretical and a
political problem. The backwardness, the lacunae, and the contradic-
tions of Marxist political theory, in this sense, impinged on the devel-
opment of a more articulate reection regarding the organizational form
of the socialist stateand the dictatorship of the proletariatwith
its specic institutions.
This critique was reinforced and built up by contemporary literature
in political science, whose main current todayneo-institutionalism
predicates a return to the state and rejects purely societal explanations
for historical processes. Such an approach maintains that Marxs vision
of the state (and of bureaucracy) was impoverished and schematic, and
that there is not, in his work, a more careful treatment of the problem
that goes beyond the mere conrmation of the class character of processes
of political domination.
In consequence, the state, from Marxs per-
spective, can never be studied as an independent actor, to use Skocpols
expression, that is, as an autonomous variable or an explanatory factor
of social and political phenomena in its own right. From this perspec-
tive, there cannot really be a theory of the state. Even the most recent
works on the capitalist state, in spite of some undeniable progress with
regard to the recognition of the relative autonomy of the political,
have not overcome what we could refer to as this genetic diculty of
Marxist political theory.
For example, Fred Block, one of the represen-
tatives of this perspective, argued that the concept of the relative au-
tonomy of the state was not more than a renewal, albeit a more sophis-
ticated one, of the stubborn Marxist reductionism that identies state
power and class power (Block I,8,a, 8,). This makes it impossible to
56 Codato and Perissinotto
understand both state and society from a relational perspective that
would give the proper weight to each one in a sociological explanation
that thus leads to a more complex view.
This essay does not intend to take inventory of the classic and contem-
porary contributions in the Marxist camp in order to contrast them to
neo-institutionalist critiques. Our goal is much more modest: to respond
to such interpretations, contrasting them to a less supercial and more
careful reading from certain selected passages from Marxs historical
works. From our point of view, the political analyses that Marx devel-
ops in Revolution and Counter-Revolution, Class Struggles in France, 1848
to 1850, and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte successfully
bring together two distinct levels of analysis.
At a more general and abstract level, Marxs point of departure for
understanding the French and German states is in fact their reproduc-
tive functions. In this sense, the autonomy that these institutions ac-
quire in particular historical situations does not make them an auton-
omous or detached social force. From the reproductive point of
view, the state is the political form of bourgeois society and state power
is identied with class power. Its reproductive role vis--vis the social
ordera fundamental criterion in dening the states class character
becomes evident in the following passage, in which the eects of the au-
tonomy of the Bonapartist state for the broader reproduction of French
industrial capitalism are evaluated:
It [the empire] was acclaimed throughout the world as the savior of
society. Under its sway, bourgeois society, freed from political cares,
attained a development unexpected even by itself. Its industry and
commerce expanded to colossal dimensions; nancial swindling cele-
brated cosmopolitan orgies; the misery of the masses was set o by a
shameless display of gorgeous, meretricious and debased luxury. The
state power, apparently soaring high above society, was the very hotbed
of all its corruptions. (Marx I8,I)
Nonetheless, at the level of analysis of political conjuncture, where
analyses of the struggles of groups, factions, and class fractions are car-
ried out, the state can be perceived as an institution endowed with its
own institutional resources, resources that bestow on it the ability to
take initiatives and make decisions. In concrete political struggle,
political groups and social classes perceive the state as a powerful insti-
tution that is capable of dening the distribution of diverse resources
The State and Contemporary Political Theory 57
within society. Because of this, struggles occur over the direct control or
exercise of inuence from afar over the dierent branches of the state
apparatus. At this level of analysis, it is possible to think of the state, on
the one hand, and class, on the other, as distinct and autonomous realities.
Therefore, we are able to think of state power as dierent from class
power and of a conict-based relationship between the two. Thus we can
nd in Marxs texts themselvesand this is the basis of our argument
certain clues that enable us to think of the state as an institution, to
use the term that is so much in vogue today.
The State as Institution in Marxs Historical Works
Marxs political analyses always preserved the decisive dierence be-
tween the state apparatus and state power. It was precisely the attention
that he devoted to the former that enabled him to emphasize two other
correlated dierences: between the dominant economic class (or class
fraction) and the class (or fraction or group) that governed politically,
and between state and government. This latter problem can be better
understood by considering the opposition that the author established
between social classes real and nominal power. In fact, a particular class
(or class fraction) can hold the helm of the state in its handsthat is,
the government per sewithout being the ruling class, and vice versa.
Moreover, this is a topic that has been of utmost importance to a whole
tradition within Marxism, as represented, for example, by Gramsci.
In the works we analyze here, the distinction between real and nominal
power fullls the role of emphasizing the importance of the institutional
dimension of the state in political struggle. As we intend to demonstrate,
the political predominance of a given class or class fraction at a par-
ticular historical conjuncture depends to a large extent on its ability to
control or inuence the branch of the state apparatus that holds real
power. This power has a hold over a quantity of institutional resources
(budget, administration, repression) that endow the branch within which
they are concentrated with decision-making power and hands the ad-
ministrative reins over to the class that is installed therein. Marxs his-
torical analyses reveal, among other quite suggestive elements, that there
is intense struggle between ruling classes and class fractions over the con-
trol of these apparatuses. In this sense, the political struggles that took
place in Germany in I88 and in France in the I88,I period show,
58 Codato and Perissinotto
contrary to the neo-institutionalist argument, a relational conception of
the pair state/dominant classes, a conception that could only develop
to the extent that Marx understood the state as a reality separate from
social classes.
Where in Marx can this problem be found? In a series of four articles
published at the end of I88 in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, Marx ana-
lyzes the reasons for the failure of the antifeudal revolution and the
founding of a specically bourgeois political domain in Germany (Marx
I,8,). To get back to the central question: why is it that the German I88
does not repeat the English Io8 or the French I,8,? The events that
occurred between March and December show that, whether under
Camphausen or the Hansemann ministry, and even though the German
bourgeoisie may have been nominally in control at the helm of the
Prussian state (owing to its hesitations and the backward steps taken
before the democratic demands of the people and to its ability to as-
sume only its most narrow, immediate interests), the feudal counter-
revolutionaries as represented by the old bureaucracy and the old
army, loyal to the Crown, ended up taking over all important positions
of the state apparatus, thus guaranteeing the restoration of the ancien
The Prussian bourgeoisie was nominally in control and did not for a
moment doubt that the powers of the old state had placed themselves
unreservedly at its disposal and had become oshoots of its own
omnipotence. Not only in the cabinet but throughout the monarchy
the bourgeoisie was intoxicated with this delusion. (Ibid.)
How was this able to happen? Or, more precisely: what is the source
of this illusion? It is the belief that because the Prussian bourgeoisie
was at the helm of the state (government oce; at the head of the
government cabinets), it also held real power in its hands. This strate-
gic mistake was what led this class to engage in Suppression of every po-
litical move of the proletariat and of all social strata whose interests do
not completely coincide with the interests of the class which believes
itself to be standing at the helm of state (ibid.). Thus, this movement
led to the strengthening of the old repressive institutions: the old Pruss-
ian police force, the judiciary, the bureaucracy and the army, who, since
they receive their pay from the bourgeoisie, also serve the bourgeoisie,
The State and Contemporary Political Theory 59
as Hansemann thought (ibid.). It was precisely this institutional base
that allowed the old social forces to organize the feudal counter-
Let us take a look at this same problemthe lack of overlap between
real power and formal powerfrom another point of view. How is this
expressed in the realm of the state apparatus? At the heart of the state
apparatus there are only some branches that, in detriment of others,
hold eective power or, more properly speaking, real decision-making
powerwhat Marx has called, in The Class Struggle in France, the (ca-
pacity for) initiative in the government. In concrete terms, political
power is concentrated in specic nuclei of the state apparatus; these, in
turn, can be occupied directly (or controlled or inuenced) by dierent
social classes; in this case, the relative power of each of them is deter-
mined by its proximity to or distance from the most important center of
decision making. This can be gleaned from the following passage:
Marche, a worker, dictated the decree by which the newly formed
Provisional Government pledged itself to guarantee the workers a
livelihood by means of labor, to provide work for all citizens, etc. And
when a few days later it forgot its promises and seemed to have lost sight
of the proletariat, a mass of :o,ooo workers marched on the Htel de
Ville with the cry: Organize labor! Form a special Ministry of labor!
Reluctantly and after long debate, the Provisional Government nomi-
nated a permanent special commission charged with lending means of
improving the lot of the working classes! This commission consisted of
delegates from the corporations [guilds] of Paris artisans and was
presided over by Louis Blanc and Albert. The Luxembourg Palace was
assigned to it as its meeting place. In this way the representatives of the
working class were banished from the seat of the Provisional Govern-
ment, the bourgeois part of which retained the real state power and the
reins of administration exclusively in its hands; and side by side with the
ministries of nance, trade, and public works, side by side with the Bank
and the Bourse, there arose a socialist synagogue whose high priests, Louis
Blanc and Albert, had the task of discovering the promised land, of
preaching the new gospel, and of providing work for the Paris prole-
tariat. Unlike any profane state power, they had no budget, no executive
authority at their disposal. They were supposed to break the pillars of
bourgeois society by dashing their heads against them. While the Luxem-
bourg sought the philosophers stone, in the Htel de Ville they minted
the current coinage. (Marx I,o, :,; boldface emphasis added)
60 Codato and Perissinotto
Thus, this indicates that the State (or, more precisely, the institutional
system of state apparatuses) is a complex compound with higher (rul-
ing) levelswhat Marx also refers to as decisive posts, where in fact
the reins of administration are heldand subordinate levels (with no
executive authority, as we have seen).
The task of Marxist political
analysis is, precisely, to identify those apparatuses where real power is
concentrated. What could be called the center(s) of real power are, in
this context, the indispensable site where class hegemony is exercised.
Therefore, it should be emphasized that real power emanates directly
from a series of institutional resourcesadministration, budget, execu-
tive powerconcentrated in a specic branch of the state apparatus,
through which the social class that controls it is endowed with a superior
position in political struggle. The contrast between the Luxembourg
Palace and the Htel de Ville speaks eloquently in this regard.
In turn, the way in which the bureaucratic structure of the state and
political hegemony are articulated can be better understood by follow-
ing Marxs analyses of French politics during the period that precedes
the December I8,I coup. The February revolution, which undermined
the nancial aristocracys exclusive dominion that had been consecrated
by the July Monarchy, had the major task of consummating bourgeois
rule, by allowing . . . all the propertied classes to enter the orbit of polit-
ical power (ibid., o).
This critical compromise was to be denitively
broken at the beginning of November I8, with Minister Barrot-Fallouxs
dismissal and Minister dHautpouls ascent. What was the real meaning
of this change in government? In sum, the restoration of the nancial
aristocracy through its control over a decision-making center.
According to Marx himself, the new cabinets nance minister was
Achille Fould. Fould as Finance Minister signies the ocial surrender
of Frances national wealth to the Bourse, the management of the states
property by the Bourse and in the interests of the Bourse. With the nomi-
nation of Fould, the nance aristocracy announced its restoration in
the Moniteur. . . . In place of the names of the saints [the bourgeois repub-
lic] put the bourgeois proper names of the dominant class interests. . . .
With Fould, the initiative in the government returned to the nance aris-
tocracy (ibid.; emphasis added).
Now, as we can see, this fundamental shift in the heart of the power-
holding bloc occurred through the recovery of the nance ministry and
The State and Contemporary Political Theory 61
the maintenance of this apparatus insofar as it represented the seat of
eective power. All the political struggles of this subperiod, which spans
from June I,, I8,, to March Io, I8,o, can be summarized in this episode
of (re)conquest of executive power:
The Barrot-Falloux Ministry was the rst and last parliamentary ministry
that Bonaparte brought into being. Its dismissal forms, accordingly, a
decisive turning point. With it the party of Order lost, never to re-
conquer it, an indispensable position for the maintenance of the
parliamentary regime, the lever of executive power. It is immediately
obvious that in a country like France, where the executive power
commands an army of ocials numbering more than half a million
individuals and therefore constantly maintains an immense mass of
interests and livelihoods in the most absolute dependence; where the
state enmeshes, controls, regulates, superintends, and tutors civil society
from its most comprehensive manifestations of life down to its most
insignicant stirrings, from its most general modes of being to the
private existence of individuals; where through the most extraordinary
centralization this parasitic body acquires a ubiquity, an omniscience, a
capacity for accelerated mobility, and an elasticity which nds a counter-
part only in the helpless dependence, the loose shapelessness of the
actual body politicit is obvious that in such a country the National
Assembly forfeits all real inuence when it loses command of the
ministerial posts. (Marx I,o,, oIo:; boldface emphasis added)
The nancial aristocracy travels the opposite route of the Party of
Order. It struggled to regain its political inuenceundermined by the
I88 revolutionthroughout the Republican period. This inuence
was recovered through the (re)conquest of the nance ministry and of
the maintenance of this apparatus specically as the site where eective
power was concentrated. When Bonaparte dismissed Minister Odilon
Barrot and replaced him with Achille Fould, he was in fact allowing the
nancial aristocracy to recover the privileged position it held within
the state apparatus under Louis Philippe.
Looking at these elements, we are able to establish two fundamental
criteria that, when combined with others, enable us to describe and ex-
plain the concrete conguration taken on by the state system: in the
rst place, it reects the variation in the correlation of forces between
the executive branches that make up the state apparatus in accordance
with their real participation in the decision-making process (as exem-
plied by Marxs contrast between the Luxembourg Palace and the
62 Codato and Perissinotto
Htel de Ville); in the second place, the relationship of competition
and predominance between the executive and the legislative (the Na-
tional Assembly) in the tortuous process of dening governmental
policies must be considered. Taken together, these factors should be able
to indicate, with a reasonable margin of certainty, the site where eective
power is located within the state apparatus.
In short, at the political juncture Marx analyzed, the political su-
premacy of a particular class fraction results from the control or inu-
ence that this class (or its representatives) are able to exercise over the
apparatus in which real power is concentrated. Thus, it seems dicult
to maintain that Marx underestimates the importance of the state as
an institution that contributes to the precise conguration taken on by
the relations of force in a political scenario within a given historical sit-
uation. To maintain such a position, one must ignore all of the passages
cited earlier. What we can perceive are the various groups and social
classes in conict over the control of institutional resources monopolized
by the state apparatus or, more specically, by some of its branches. If
the state were an institution of lesser importance, how could Marx
characterize it as the major object of desire of social classes in strug-
gle? The state, in Marxs historical works, constitutes the principal tar-
get of political struggle precisely because it concentrates an enormous
amount of decision-making power and a signicant ability to allocate
Conclusion: The Limits of Neo-institutionalism
Neo-institutionalists have accused the Marxist theory of the state of
committing the serious mistake of underestimating the state as an insti-
tution. This mistake is seen as the inevitable consequence of the Marxist
emphasis on the class character of the state apparatus, which, in turn,
would make it impossible, from this theoretical perspective, to elabo-
rate a theory of the state per se.
We have tried to demonstrate that the analyses in Marxs historical
works place value on the state as an institution separate from the rul-
ing classes and class fractions, endowed with resources of its own and,
especially in the French case, possessing considerable ability to take ini-
tiative and make decisions. It is this institutional dimension of the state
that motivates social groups and classes, to conquer a privileged position
within it. The French political scenario, from I88 to I8,I, was the stage
The State and Contemporary Political Theory 63
of a struggle between antagonistic social classes, on the one hand, and
ruling classes and class fractions, on the other, over the conquest, in-
crease, or consolidation of their respective political inuence on state
institutions. This is, without doubt, a vision in which state and class
constitute autonomous poles of a single relationship. At the same time,
because we do not want to turn Marx into an institutionalist avant la
lettre, it is necessary to emphasize that his analyses, and studies done
by Marxist theorists in general, go beyond the immediate dimension
of specic political struggles and the institutional aspect of the state
To recognize the autonomy of the state, its institutional reality, its
logic, and the specic interests of its state agents should not, accord-
ing to Marx and the Marxists, stop us from asking what kind of social
relations the actions of the autonomous state reproduce. It has been
precisely through this concept of state power that Marxists have tried
to respond to this question. As Nicos Poulantzas emphasized:
The various social institutions, in particular the institution of the state,
do not, strictly speaking, have any power. Institutions, considered from
the point of view of power, can be related only to social classes which
hold power. As it is exercised, this power of the social classes is organized
in specic institutions which are power centres: in this context the state is
the centre of the exercise of political power. (Poulantzas I,,,, II,)
The problem of state power is theoretically distinct from the problem
of the state apparatus. Insofar as the latter refers to the institutional
dimension, the former seeks to identify which social relations are guar-
anteed through the public policies that the state promotes. Thus, the so-
cial class whose privileged position in the productive structure of a given
society is maintained through state actions can be considered the class
that holds power.
If we disregard the risk of an exacerbated functionalismthat can spring
from this theoretical positionthat is, from assuming that the state is
functional for the ruling classes long-term interestsit is undeniable
that it represents progress in relation to the neo-institutionalist con-
ception. The identication of the specicities of the state apparatus
and the bureaucratic origin of particular measures is just a rst step in
the analysis of the relationship between state and society. Evidence
of disputes between the state and ruling classes is not enough to war-
rant any conclusions before inquiring into the results that such conicts
64 Codato and Perissinotto
have in terms of the social relations that structure a given social forma-
tion. It is true that Marxist insistence on the question of state power
may very often lead to underestimating the political conicts between
the state and social classes that are of a more situational nature, which
tend to be qualied as supercial, short-term, or referring to mere
immediate interests. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that the
Marxist position is a guarantee against the opposite sin, which would
be to interpret these conicts as irrefutable evidence that the state is
not a class state.
Another problem that the neo-institutionalists point out, just as im-
portant as the rst, is the highly general and abstract character of neo-
Marxist theories of the capitalist state. From this point of view, the the-
oretical discussions initiated by Nicos Poulantzas have only produced
ahistorical, and therefore nonoperational, formulations. Thus, accord-
ing to the neo-institutionalists, if, on the one hand, the state must be
understood theoretically as a fully autonomous institution, theoretical
explanations must at the same time avoid excessive generalization. It is
only through historical research that the real degree of autonomy of any
concrete state can be revealed, and it is only through this type of re-
search that such autonomy can be measured (cf. Barrow I,,,, I:,,;
Skocpol, I,8,). The state can be autonomous to a greater or lesser de-
gree, totally autonomous or totally subordinate to the ruling classes,
depending on concrete historical situations. As Skocpol argues (I,8,, I):
state autonomy is not a xed structural feature of any governmental
system. It can come and go. . . . Thus, although cross-national research
can indicate in general terms whether a governmental system has
stronger or weaker tendencies toward autonomous state action,
the full potential of this concept can be realized only in truly historical
studies that are sensitive to structural variations and conjunctural
changes within polities.
In our opinion, such a position leads to two problems. The rst, and
perhaps least compromising, resides in the lack of originality in the
armation that the states degree of autonomy vis--vis the ruling
classes is a historical matter and that for this reason it cannot be derived
from a general theory of the capitalist state. We believe that the Marxian
analyses we have cited reveal exactly the historical variation in the rela-
tionship between the state and the economically dominant classes. Both
in Germany and in France, the relationship between the two uctuates
The State and Contemporary Political Theory 65
according to the dynamics of political struggle, in which diverse class
fractions, social groups, and the state bureaucracy participate. In the
French case, as we have seen, before Bonapartes coup there was also a
fraction of the bourgeoisie that held real power directly. The I8,I coup, in
any event, was the fruit of a political process that led to a new situation
in which the states degree of autonomy grew considerably. Poulantzas
himself, accused of excessive general theoretical abstraction, always em-
phasized the historical dimension of the states degree of relative auton-
omy with regard to the political struggles of ruling classes and class
fractions. The same can be said of Max Webers work on the modern
state, which in fact can be considered the matrix of the premises of neo-
institutionalist theory, as Skocpol herself recognizes (ibid., ,).
A more serious problem can be found in the fact that the concept of
autonomy that is used by the neo-institutionalists, and Theda Skocpol
in particular, leads to an excessively formalist conception of the state, in
spite of all of the historicizing theoretical discourse that these authors
put forth. As Clyde Barrow has noted, the emphasis on the states insti-
tutional capacity and on the historical dimension of this capacity has
led to a strong state/weak state antinomy, that is, a scale of meas-
urement in which the states autonomy varies according to specic his-
torical situations. Only the concrete relationship between state agents
and social forces in any given society can determine whether the state in
that society is strong or weak. In this manner, we would not arrive at
a theory of the state, as the neo-institutionalists argue, but at a mere triv-
iality according to which strong statesthat is, those that are endowed
with signicant institutional resourcesare more capable of acting au-
tonomously against the interests of the ruling class, given their institu-
tional capacity to do so. Conversely, weak states have lesser chances to act
against the interests of the ruling class, even when this is the will of the
state elite, given their lesser institutional capacity (Barrow I,,,, I,:).
This purely quantitative view of the question of state autonomy is a
tributary of J. P. Nettls seminal article (Nettl I,o8), cited several times
in the book by Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol, which in the end
amounts to a purely functional account of the state, as the author him-
self admits. Nettl rst presents a schema of essential traits that charac-
terize a state (internal and external sovereignty, autonomy, sociocultural
roots) and then goes on to assert that his concept provides a measure-
ment of stateness (or, in another formulation of his, the saliency of the
66 Codato and Perissinotto
state) for a given society. Because this is a quantitative variable, the
best way to measure would be through functional analysis. Thereby, so-
cieties characterized by centralized administration directed by the state,
state sovereignty that has been institutionalized in detriment of other non-
state organizations, in which the state has autonomy (in other words,
capacity to take initiatives), and consequently, the ability to implement
its objectives, can be seen as societies with high levels of stateness; on
the contrary, societies in which these attributes are weak or absent can
be seen as possessing a low level of stateness. Ultimately, the main con-
cern of the approach suggested by neo-institutionalists is the (concep-
tual) denition and (empirical) measurement of the stateness of a given
society. For this purpose, certain functional attributes have been posited
as dening the state, and their empirical presence, as more or less in-
tense, serves as a yardstick for qualifying a state as weak or strong.
The preference for the functional analysis of this quantitative variable
is justied, according to Nettl, because in this way a generic denition
of the state can be produced, without including certain structural char-
acteristics that, as historical and therefore variable, can be identied
through empirical research.
In our opinion, this quantitative vision of
the autonomy of the state, which aims to leave the structural specicities
of the state to historical analysis, becomes highly abstract and formalist
to the extent that it ignores the existing correspondence between partic-
ular political structures and particular types of relations of production.
As a result, this theoretical perspective is not able to structurally di-
erentiate dierent states, that is, to perceive that strong or weak states,
in spite of this quantitative similarity, can be structurally distinct to the
extent that they correspond to dierent social relations. The institu-
tionalist approach would lead us to identify the French society of the
absolutist monarchy as a society with a high degree of stateness, and to
say the same regarding French society of the postrevolutionary period,
because both states were capable of exercising all of the prototypical func-
Yet this position disregards the fact that these are two dierent
types of state, with dierent organizational structures and that fulll
their functions in qualitatively dierent ways, with their own ideologies
and mechanisms for establishing legitimacy, corresponding to two his-
torically distinct types of society. For this reason, the materialist thesis
of the correspondence between the relations of production and the forms
taken on by the state, as Marx synthesized in his Preface to A Contribu-
The State and Contemporary Political Theory 67
tion to the Critique of Political Economy, seems extremely important to
us. Without this possibility, we would be left at a very generic and for-
mal level in which we would only be able to determine if society x or y
entertains greater or lesser stateness, but would be unable to explain
why the states under consideration take on the form that they do or
operate in one way rather than another.
Marxism, in taking into account the inescapable links between polit-
ical structure and relations of production in a particular society, thus
supplies us with a theory of the state that is at once general and histor-
ical. This is in fact Nicos Poulantzass project in Political Power and So-
cial Classes. As is known, this author has a clearly functional perspective
insofar as he denes any and every state as a factor of cohesion in a
given social formation. At the same time, and following Marxs indica-
tion, he sees this function as exercised dierently by qualitatively dierent
states, that is, states that are dierentially structured. Thus, in a func-
tional sense we could say that capitalist states and the states of slave so-
cieties are equivalent. Nonetheless, they are extremely dierent from
the structural point of view and in the way in which they carry out their
function, because they belong to qualitatively dierent societies. In this
sense, the generality of the theory of the capitalist state in Poulantzas
is much less abstract than the vision of the state elaborated by the insti-
tutionalists, for it includes only one historical type of state structure.
Thus, when we speak of a capitalist state, we are speaking of some-
thing very specic, of a historically particular type of state; on the other
hand, when we speak of a strong state, we are referring to any state
that incorporates the attributes that Nettl and Skocpol have identied.
Thus, neo-institutionalism, in rejecting the connection between the state
and relations of production, produces a purely quantitative and highly
abstract theory that, in spite of its historical discourse, can be indis-
criminately applied to all types of state, without giving due value to their
structural dierences.
This is a modied version of the paper presented at the seminar The Concept of
State in Modern and Contemporary Philosophy, organized by the Department of
Philosophy of the Federal University of Paran (Brazil), April I, and :o, :ooo. It has
been translated from Portuguese by Miriam Adelman.
68 Codato and Perissinotto
1. One of the most fundamental theoretical conquests of modern political theory
was the assertion of the class character of processes of political domination by clas-
sical Marxists. See, in this regard, Macpherson I,8,, chapter ,.
2. This is also Ralph Milibands (I,8,a) interpretation with regard to the core of
Marxian (and Marxist) conception of the state.
3. On the underdevelopment of Marxist intellectual production within the
domain of political and economic theory from the I,,os on, and the prevalence of
aesthetic and cultural studies, see Anderson I,,o.
4. See also Bobbio I,8, (:I,,) and I,8o (I,,). Actually, this problem was rst
emphasized by Aron (I,oo).
5. As Robert Goodin (I,,o, I) has observed, neo-institutionalism includes a
variety of theoretical currents in a wide variety of elds of knowledge (economics,
sociology, history, political science). However, all of them share the more general
thesis according to which political institutions should be seen as autonomous ex-
planatory variables, endowed with a logic of their own, and not as the result of so-
cial forces in conict. Evidently, this article does not intend to dialogue with all of
these theoretical currents, but only with those that choose Marxism as their main
interlocutor. Here we have specically in mind Theda Skocpols well-known article
(Skocpol I,8,, ,,). See also Block I,8,a and I,8,b; Miliband I,8,b; and March
and Olsen I,8,, II,.
6. The concept of the relative autonomy of the capitalist state was theoreti-
cally elaborated by Nicos Poulantzas in his book Pouvoir politique et classes sociales.
This was a seminal work that propelled Marxist and Marxist-inspired authors to
take up the study of the state again. This was the concern of authors such as Joaquim
Hirsch, Claus Oe, Elmar Altvater, and Ralph Miliband, among others, who in their
works theoretically conjoined the notions of the class nature of the state appara-
tus and the relative autonomy of this apparatus vis--vis the ruling classes. The
neo-institutionalist perspective is an attempt to go beyond the limits of the societary
analysis of the state carried out by neo-Marxists. In this regard, the title of Fred
Blocks (I,8,a) article is signicant: Beyond Relative Autonomy: State Leaders as
Historical Subjects. For a summary of neo-institutionalist critiques of Marxism,
see Barrow (I,,,, I:,,).
7. The distinction between the two levels of analysis that are present in Marxs
political theory is obviously not original. Nicos Poulantzas was the rst to system-
atize this as he perceived it in Marx (see Poulantzas I,o8). His argument emphasizes
the general or systemic function of the state as a factor of social cohesion (or re-
producer of class relations) and the main or historic characteristic of the capitalist
state in class struggle: its relative autonomy with regard to ruling classes and frac-
tions. However, Poulantzas was primarily concerned with the rst level of analysis,
in other words, with theorizing on the class character of the state starting from its
reproductive function within capitalist relations of production. We would like to in-
sist, based on Marxs own work, on the importance of the institutional aspects of
the state for understanding its conict-based relationship with ruling classes and
fractions and its political consequences. See also Draper (I,,,, ,I,).
8. All the expressions within quotation marks belong to Marx (I88).
9. The sentences in italics were highlighted by Marx; the sentences in bold ital-
ics are our emphasis.
The State and Contemporary Political Theory 69
10. Thus in the approaching mle between bourgeoisie and proletariat, all the
advantages, all the decisive posts, all the middle strata of society were in the hands of
the bourgeoisie, at the same time as the waves of the February Revolution rose high
over the whole Continent, and each new post brought a new bulletin of revolution,
now from Italy, now from Germany, now from the remotest parts of southeastern
Europe, and maintained the general ecstasy of the people, giving it constant testi-
mony of a victory that it had already forfeited (Marx I,o, ,o).
11. It was not the French bourgeoisie that ruled under Louis Philippe, but one
faction of it: bankers, stock-exchange kings, railway kings, owners of coal and iron
mines and forests, a part of the landed proprietors associated with themthe so-
called nancial aristocracy. It sat on the throne, it dictated laws in the Chambers, it
distributed public oces, from cabinet portfolios to tobacco bureau posts (ibid.,
12. The following can also be deduced: The fact that the French ruling classes
and class fractions were successful (or unsuccessful) in exercising direct or indirect
control over the center of real power in the state apparatuswhich could consti-
tute a certain instrumentalismis a historical fact and not the result of a theo-
retical vice; it is the result of historical research and not a theoretical conjecture.
13. See also Therborn I,,8.
14. On Nicos Poulantzas, see I,o8, I,,o, ,:.
15. On Skocpols position, see also I,,,.
16. According to Skocpol, these attributes are complete integrity and stable ad-
ministrative and military control over a territory, the existence of a body of loyal
and qualied sta, and economic resources that are abundant enough to guarantee
the ecacy of state action. See Skocpol I,8,.
17. The overall conceptual identication of the state with law, with bureau-
cracy, or with government merely reimposes an articial . . . notion of state by group-
ing structures that are better particularized and that are part of the state in some
empirical situations but not in many others where some or all of these structures
exist and function without any valid notion or phenomenon of state at all (Nettl
I,o8, ,o,).
18. This is just the type of formalism that Marx did not allow himself. In his
view, just as the absolutist monarchy served the interests of the emerging bourgeois
society but had to be swept away by the gigantic broom of the French Revolution
to make way for a new political structure more adequate to that society, the work-
ing class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for
its own purposes (Marx I8,I). From this perspective, we can certainly assert that
the absolutist monarchy, the postrevolutionary French state, and a possible socialist
state are strong states. However, to limit ourselves to this evaluation would be to
belittle the specicities of these state structures and their relationship to the dier-
ent societies in which they operate.
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72 Codato and Perissinotto